Excerpts from Marcelo Cohen’s The End of the Same
There are men on the beach. They are prisoners. Right now they are establishing a routine in order to accommodate various states of rage, depression, and reverie. Most of them have been unsuccessful. The sun’s trajectory is disorienting (the stretch of beach extends from northeast to southwest); they arrived only yesterday and it is possible that the multiple vaccines they were given on their first afternoon have thrown off their biorhythms. It seems as though some of them have already met before prison, or maybe they are just drawn to each other by their rancorous affinities; now some of them lounge in the shade of the canopies on the beach, others sit on the parapet between the sand and the asphalt, others keep their distance, lying at the water’s edge, and still there are others who do not leave their cells, perhaps because they have never seen the sea and are more skeptical than curious.
There are sixty-eight of them. In the diaphanous nylon of morning they all look like vacationers at a massive resort, mostly because they have been given new clothing made of denim in different – yet similar – styles, festooned with brand-name labels. Close-up their expressions are full of hatred. Some of them already have gashes in their pant legs, bruised faces. Smears of blood too; something happened last night. The ritual of eating breakfast placates them. One redheaded man pours his tea into the sand and spits out his corn flakes because someone says they are full of laxatives and sedatives. A few meters away, the rubber soles of a pair of Adidas slap at the cement on the parapet.
When Sergio entered his cell, a pale-faced Asian man was snoring away in one of the beds, his fists clenched. Sergio was no idiot: he discovered that the doors opening onto the beach did not lock, and by that night he had already moved everything – his blanket, wooden spoon, bowl, magazines and clothes – to one of the few unoccupied cells at the other end of the pavilion. There he ate his garbanzo stew and, unable to sleep, went to stare out at the same beach he had felt forced to dismiss as useless that very afternoon.
When he finally realized there was sand crunching under his rubber soles he had already reached the water’s edge. The noise of the sea started him with the cruel efficacy of an alarm clock. He took a step back and sat down. Ten meters to the right, the wall seemed to be blocking the odor of iodine, allowing only the faintest traces of it to waft over into the prison. Sergio stared at the wall, the rocks that buttressed it, and shook his head. He thought he could hear the sea speaking, mumbling incoherently, gibberish, as though it were trying to distract him from his plans.
Most importantly he had to reason. Those tools who had sentenced him to two years up the river (though in this case it was more like down the shore) wanted to see him destroyed, and he had to get out even more whole than he had been before. It was his only chance for revenge. He was not just any old loser destined to end up on the dole, he thought to himself. He was an entrepreneur who had sworn to God that he would never again sell tires or eat rice soup for a whole week straight. Which is why, if for no other reason, he had gotten himself into the business of trafficking glands – a new and promising enterprise. The glands were taken from fetuses: pituitary glands, adrenal glands, which someone very quietly imported from Russia or Armenia. It wasn’t hard to find buyers. They told Sergio his job was to contact clients. A disseminator, they told him he would be; tremendous commissions. A doctor who owned one of the clinics had explained to him that they developed useful drugs and vaccines with the cells, and sometimes they could even use the whole gland. Sergio thought he would get rich by helping science on the sly, but now he was a prisoner; a shut-away. His boss, the ringleader, had been released on bail; they didn’t go after the clients; and everyone knew the judge had gotten himself a new pair of pituitaries out of the deal. Sergio was a prisoner. His only triumph would be in becoming more whole than before. And then he would take action.
The glands in the body produce hormones. The sea, was it a man or a woman? And injustice? And the future? Surely the future was a man.
Overcome with a strong urge to swim, Sergio jumped up and went to go paddle in the surf. Two brawny bowlegged men approached, their voices muffled by the sound of the waves. They were motioning in the direction of the neon buoys. Sergio jogged back to his cell, thinking he might as well get some exercise. He was in cell number two, the second from the wall on the right.
During the first few nights, the prisoners learn it is not advisable to linger in the open air after 11 o’clock at night, when a tangle of light beams riddles the sand like hot iron lances, not letting up until the early hours of morning. Though the beams don’t set off alarms or explosions when they come into contact with someone, and though touching the light is not painful, the effect of being suddenly illuminated inspires the prisoners to imagine taking revenge of unfathomable proportions. They all seek refuge in their cells while the incandescent sabers perform a frenetic ballet on the sand before the unmarred water. Just when this ballet will end – and sometimes it can stop for hours at a time, allowing the spume to shine in the moonlight – the prisoners can’t say.
The prisoners do not have any contact with the guards. Sometimes the little windows in the doors to the gallery open, a synthesized voice demands the empty plates and hands with no pulse return them full of food. The hands are pubescent, opaque, rubbery and foreboding. They have the same amphibious quality that the prisoners can see from afar in the jowls of the guards.
It is not only the guards’ eerie opaqueness that unnerves the prisoners, for the guards are also armed, and pacing back and forth in front of the cells. A deep uneasiness begins to settle in as the prisoners realize they don’t know how to go about life on the beach. Being prisoners, however, some soon decide to impose order on the prevailing apathy. Like sand sifted into a tide pool, drug-altered desire clots around caudillos who make up in strength what they lack in honor. Fights have already been waged by some over the ownership of other prisoners, beach territory, and wooden crockery; others have discovered that with patience a blade can be fashioned from a shell. Drugs beyond those in the beans start to circulate from cell to cell. Seridal, Dilamine, Dirium, cocaine, benzoles, weed. They aren’t very strong, but enough to make for a thriving business, and from the little money now in circulation a criminal underground is born. Two groups arise from this tangle of relationships defined by immunity and servitude, appropriation and offense. One is headed up by Carmelito, sallow in aspect, ex-number one fan of the hard rock group Piedra Pómez. The leader of the other group is the calculating and spiteful Park Ho from Korea, along with his éminence grise Pablo Karmet, a bald man whose age is hard to guess, a lover of saunas and racetracks, and (he claims) a soccer agent.
Someone instigates a sophisticated system of rumors, making sure everyone knows that Carmelito was a scrap dealer, car stereo thief and a train bandit. That they finally nabbed him on his way out of a Piedra Pómez concert when he slit a police horse’s throat after it charged the fans and trampled his girlfriend. Though nobody says it aloud, everybody including Carmelito finds it strange that the police didn’t go ahead and kill him on the spot; this leads them all to make inarticulate conclusions about the special or deliberate nature of their beach confines.
It’s rumored that Park Ho did his boss a favor by setting fire to one of his under-performing metallurgical plants. Karmet ensures not too much is known about him. Carmelito is always surrounded by young prisoners, excitement, swagger and bravado. Park, on the other hand, is bolstered by a conglomerate that boasts more volume in both years and contributions.
Half of the prisoners drift between the two groups as free agents, keeping a cautious distance from both.
Sergio mulls over his options. He has made the acquaintance of two giant men, and has decided to let them tag along. Fifty-year-old twin brothers Roque and Ricardo Pino. They say they shut the owner of the butcher shop where they worked in a meat locker because their subject was trying to screw them (they claim there was a dispute over the ownership of a lottery ticket – they were entitled half). The butcher lost a foot to frostbite. Ricardo, who moves like a giant, has a gentle shyness about him, and he loathes Carmelito’s clan as much as he fears it.
That night, after his much-guarded conversation with the twins, Sergio is nearly frustrated to tears for the first time. He realizes that while the sheer mass of the Pino brothers might be enough to protect him, ultimately it could never save him; after all, the twins are quick and ruthless when it comes to guarding the cookies their mother sends them, or hunting seagulls, but their approach to matters of strategy, Sergio thinks, is downright infantile. So Sergio is alone, as he plans to remain. The following day he is forced to endure several jibes from Carmelito (Who’s the minnow? Wanna be one of us, compote?), and then manages to get a few hours of peace.
At first the surface appears even, streaked with greens and blues suggested by the playful light, but with the wind’s upheaval it is stirred into white peaks and fleeting valleys of shadow. The sea has no surface, it is not made of one slab. A seagull in search of sardines take a dive, tearing open a foaming wound: as far down as the light can penetrate, deeply, millions of diatoms and abundant spring flagellates devour each other or die, eaten by copepods, while by night the plankton holocaust gives off a phosphorescent glow.
The sea is an illusion of continuity that violently shatters itself again and again. The sand is a cemetery that grows warm at midday. Sometimes when the tide recedes, the eye might discover all the death left in its wake, the unmoving gelatinous corpses of washed-up jellyfish. Besides these few signs, any further suggestion of the sea’s criminal activity is masked by its scent.
The prisoners could hardly care less about any of this. They barely care enough to ask why the three orange buoys are there. In this sea there sails no ship, not one sailboat.
Jolxen, Claudio Jolxen, was a green-eyed redhead with pallid lips always moist with nervous spittle. He had a tiny nose that could barely hold up his glasses, and everything south of his bobbing Adam’s apple buzzed with intensity generated either by alertness or fear, and in any case excessive for someone over thirty. He always had one hand – his right or his left – on his hip, his thumb hooked around the front and the other four fingers around his back, pressing into a kidney, as though he were trying stop all his malicious inclinations from surging upward to his brain.
One morning Sergio was in his cell mending one of his shirts when the redhead came by to introduce himself: “Jolxen, Claudio,” he said. “Cell nine; I’m with the pastry chef Parsechián.” And as a further credential he added he was with the Pino gang. A ways beyond, the twins were nodding off like rubber elephants pinned to the sand. “I think I know a thing or two,” said Jolxen. His loud breathing annoyed Sergio, who answered after a long silence, “Well, we’ll see about that.” Jolxen paused to wipe his glasses before leaving and smiled in amusement at Sergio’s response. “We sure will,” he said.
Every three days a hulking, screeching apparatus heaves open the cell doors leading to the gallery and a voice comes over the loudspeakers inviting the prisoners to line up for the showers and then proceed to the canteen to make their purchases. Only five or six of them actually come forward after the second announcement; this is not because they wish to ration the thinning cash wads few of them even have, and not because they prefer to make anonymous transactions through their windows, and not even because the shower is the place where all manner of groping and transgressions might occur, but because looking into the eyes of a guard, even once, is enough to make someone come undone inside, just below the sternum to the right, in a maelstrom of fear, unease and nausea. The guards do not speak, they do not strike, but their eyes, soft and tense like blisters, sclera white like starch, deal the prisoners a blow in the form of every kind of contempt they ever knew or imagined could exist on the outside. The prisoners aren’t outwardly tentative, but a subliminal force coaxes them into forgetting that on the other side of the cells there exists a gallery, a patio, an exit. And it is then, since no voice has disallowed it, that many decide to bathe in the tide, and as they bathe they begin to understand that the sea presents a limit, but also a possibility.
The prisoners had been told that visits weren’t allowed until further notice, and if they complained their packages would be confiscated. Sergio had a younger sister who looked up to him; she took pity on him too, and although misery and the neuroses often caused by it were also rampant on the outside, she had promised to send him provisions, which she now did: packets of instant coffee (glass jars weren’t allowed), oranges, cigarettes, cookies.
It wasn’t long before he lost his apples in a game of seven and a half, the means of extortion most preferred by Park and his gang. Sullen and withdrawn, Sergio now skulked along the beach in search of some small pleasure in exchange for a few cigarettes. At the foot of the digital display (11:51 a.m. /20 degrees Celsius), Lorenzo, Carmelito’s informant, was comparing his tattoos with three other toothless men in the gang. Sergio happened too close to them and got tripped.
He spun round; slowly, it seemed. Falling, he was surprised by the innocent lightheartedness of their laughter, and then the swift kick one of them delivered to his behind. He was saved from fighting because in a stroke of luck Carmelito himself came forward to ask for a cigarette. Sergio gave him two, feeling at once disgusted by his own cowardice and hopeful at the prospect of a reward. But instead of just standing there, he wandered several meters away and sat alone near the palm tree. His eyes on the water, he heard little more over the rumbling waves than the sound of a foot repeatedly kicking a metal drum; it was as though the will of each man’s voice had become crystallized in the light. He turned and saw the prisoners dotting the sand, dumbstruck, defenseless, lemon still lifes marooned between the freedom of leisure and a dizzying slap of empty horizon.
Sergio didn’t know this, but the prisoners, beleaguered, had begun to discover that the sea was also eels, octopi, anemone, stingray; and that the sea was also immenseness.
It wasn’t just the arrival of lunch (lentil stew and ripe plantains) that curbed the escalating chaos; questions rippled through the body of information suspended between the sea’s physical system and the prisoners’ mental one, and the prisoners started coming to around siesta time.
They wondered why they had been set loose on the beach. Loose wasn’t the right word, some thought, though nobody could think of a better one. The salt was starting to split their lips, numb their fingertips, their bodies felt rusty, as though their nascent yearning for lucidity was not yet strong enough to penetrate the thick residue left by their rage and the last traces of those sedatives. Instead of cigarettes, the prisoners held jugs filled with fresh water from the bathrooms. Sergio managed to overhear a few things while walking off his lunch.
The conversation among the younger tribe went something like this:
El Frutilla: This prison is sweet. Those guards are only here for the go-boys. We might as well be alone. Hey we could go for a swim, right? We’re on the beach.
Lorenzo: They’re just wearing us down, compote, provoking us. It’s a trap. We’ve got to get out of here as soon as we can.
El Frutilla (points to the guards): Yeah but these shitheads aren’t here for decoration. They’re guards, compote. They don’t have those guns for nothing.
Jato: Well there’s one way to test them. Go swim to the end of those walls. You think they got barbed wire underwater?
Carmelito (pensive): No, but those walls are pretty long. Look, they go all the way out there. And I don’t know how to swim so well.
El Banana: Me either.
Lorenzo: So learn compote! What – are you gonna sit here? Humiliate yourself?
Carmelito: Doing nothing would be sweet as hell. I’m already beat.
El Frutilla: I don’t buy it. Or are you telling me you actually got chow everyday on the outside?
Jato: Who, me? Nah.
Carmelito: Ok sucker, but garbanzos aren’t everything in life.
Sergio tried to hide his contempt and skirted to the other side of the palm tree adjacent to the wall on the left, where Park’s band had gathered near the parapet. The conversation there seemed more specific, in a sense, more pragmatic, he thought.
Saldaño (admires his bronzed arms): Maybe when I get out I could make it selling sun tan lotion.
Park: But we be skin and bone when we get out of here. It is limit, arriving to limit. You don’t want go there. A five I got.
Saldaño: Well, the food’s not bad. They’re just trying to throw us off putting us on the beach like this. Don’t let it get to you. One wrong move and there’ll be sharks waiting for us, torpedoes, you name it.
Mafud (points to the guards): As soon as they get a chance they’re going to shoot us dead. We’ll be like strainers shot through so many times.
Pablo Karmet: I wouldn’t be so sure. Look, you’d have to swim two hundred meters – more. I think they’re provoking us.
Saldaño: But just look at those guns. This is a prison man, not a casino. And besides, I only know how to dog paddle.
Park: First thing, you don’t give in. That’s most important. And don’t be dumbass. You gotta think.
Pablo Karmet: I’m no hero.
Park: Well if you shit your pan-
Pablo Karmet: I think we’re missing something. Like they put us here for a reason. There are faster ways to kill us off.
Lavisón: Like it’s ever been hard to kill people off in this country anyway. Who’s going to defend you? Your lawyer?
Pablo Karmet: Maybe this is like a reeducation thing.
Park: Government, they don’t know what happens. Secretary, vice-minister. Here, some idiot has plans for jail and government approve. Just like that. They don’t know. For example, maybe they make a stupid project and it go wrong. Maybe we can take advantage. Remember that.
Saldaño (points to the guards): But look at the faces on those bastards.
Pablo Karmet: If this is about education, then we’re going to have exams, tests, qualifiers.
Park: You’re right. This we must remember. (with a menacing look) Yes Saldaño?
Lavisón (points to Sergio): This guanaco over here is a little too interested in our conversation.
Pablo Karmet: Hey guanaco – get over here. Yeah you El Salvador, who else? What’s your name?
Park (looks him over sideways): You listening, Lavilla? What you hear?
Park: You ok by me then. Don’t be rude. You lose an ear that way. You not a Carmelito bitch?
Sergio: I’m not anyone’s bitch.
Park: I understand Lavilla. Macho man. Guy like you don’t go with nobody. Guy like you crack before all the other.